[dropcap]T[/dropcap]he unexpected and dramatic decline of reigning champions Juventus has thrown the Serie A title race wide open this season, with a new league leader moving to the table summit after the weekend action.
As first met second at the Stadio Giuseppe Meazza on Sunday, visitors Fiorentina inflicted hosts Internazionale’s first defeat of the new campaign with an impressive 4-1 victory, with the Viola leapfrogging the team they beat to move into first place.
After finishing fourth last season, the realistic aim for the Stadio Artemio Franchi outfit will be finishing in the top three and qualifying for the Champions League next term – but is there scope for Fiorentina to claim a surprise Scudetto?
The Florence-based outfit have only been crowned Italian champions twice in the club’s 89-year history, with the last triumph all the way back in 1969.
Five wins from their first six games has been an impressive start to the new campaign, with new head coach Paulo Sousa building on the work of his predecessor Vincenzo Montella.
Over the off-season there has been significant change in the playing squad, with a number of high-profile stars leaving the club.
Stefan Savić was offloaded to Atlético Madrid, Joaquín headed to Real Betis, Mario Gómez was farmed out on loan to Beşiktaş, with others such as Alberto Aquilani, Alberto Gilardino, David Pizarro and Juan Vargas also departing.
Arguably the biggest blow saw last season’s loan star Mohamed Salah spurning the chance to spend more time at the Artemio Franchi and instead head to a new-look Roma outfit.
The Viola have been shrewd in their recruitment, with the books being balanced due to clever loan deals and low-cost options.
Loan deals include the experienced Jakub Błaszczykowski from Borussia Dortmund, while Davide Astori has boosted the squad’s defensive depth.
Of the permanent deals concluded, the additions of Mario Suárez and Nikola Kalinić stand out most.
Sousa fielded a bespoke 3-4-3 system against Inter, with Sousa’s team’s pressing high up the pitch and in midfield giving opposition midfielders such as Fredy Guarín and Felipe Melo no time on the ball and forcing mistakes.
The Viola’s strong start is based around a solid defensive unit, with four clean sheets to date.
The return of Facundo Roncaglia from a loan stint at Genoa has been crucial, with the Argentine featuring in the team’s back line alongside compatriot Gonzalo Rodríguez.
On the flanks, wing-backs Błaszczykowski and Marcos Alonso offer a threat in the opposition half, with the Spaniard in particular impressing against Inter and so far this term.
Sousa has plenty of options in the centre of midfield, with a combination of Milan Badelj and Matias Vecino working well against the Nerazzurri and ensuring a solid base in front of the side’s defence.
In the attacking third, Khouma Babacar continues to look like a player with the attributes to be a menacing number nine and has scored some important goals so far this term.
Against Inter, the Senegalese was relegated to the bench, with Kalinić getting the nod and rewarding his manager’s faith with a well-taken and decisive hat-trick.
The Croat is probably best known for a botched period in England with Blackburn Rovers, but since then the 27-year-old has rebuilt his career with high-flying Ukrainians Dnipro.
Along with the clinical way he took his goals against Roberto Mancini’s men, his hold-up play and movement off the ball were also a standout feature on Sunday.
While neither Babacar or Kalinić are of the calibre of past Viola heroes such as Gabriel Batistuta or Enrico Chiesa, the team have options to lead the line.
Borja Valero continues to be one of the most under-rated players in Italian football, with his control of the team’s possession and footballing intelligence standing out against Inter.
A wildcard and potential match-winner for the club is Josip Iličić, who has been inconsistent at times over his tenure with Fiorentina but has started the new campaign well.
The Slovenian was linked with a move away from the club over the summer, but he is an important member of the side that adds drive and purpose in the final third for the Viola; something that Juan Cuadrado and then Salah have provided in recent times.
Sousa has other players at his disposal that can deputise without weakening the collective, but one of the most noticeable factors of this season’s Fiorentina is that they are no longer reliant on the mercurial Giuseppe Rossi or feeling sorry for themselves if he is unavailable or not at his best.
The confidence on the ball of the entire side and the way that the visitors played their way out from the back against Inter was also an indication of a side that believes in their ability.
The Viola will be competitive against anyone in the country this season, but a number of factors will obviously dictate where Fiorentina end up.
Participation in the Europa League has the potential to spread the team a little too thin, with the management of the squad essential for success on more than one front.
Looking at the title race, there are plenty of contenders for the Scudetto, with Serie A arguably the most open major division in European football.
Juventus have incredible quality and shouldn’t be written off just yet despite their crisis, while Roma have recruited well in the summer.
Other sides such as Inter and Torino have started well, while Napoli have the potential to be a dark horse under Maurizio Sarri.
However, the early signs are that Fiorentina look more confident, able and rounded under Sousa and that they have the potential to be in the mix as the season progresses.
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